The Dominican Republic partially reopened its border with Haiti on Wednesday to limited commercial activity, nearly a month after shuttering the frontier in a continuing spat over construction of a canal targeting water from a shared river.
Vendors in Dominican border cities are allowed to sell basic goods like food and medicine, but exporting electronic products and construction materials, including cement and metal rods, is prohibited.
Wednesday marked the first time since September 15 that the border partially reopened, although Dominican President Luis Abinader maintained a ban on issuing visas to Haitian citizens that he implemented last month and will keep the border closed to all migrants, regardless of whether they’re seeking entry for work, tourism, health or education purposes.
While the gates at the northern Dominican border city of Dajabon opened late Wednesday morning, the gates on the Haitian side remained closed, and it wasn’t immediately clear why. Meanwhile, dozens of trucks and containers were lined up nearby, filled with goods.
The Dominican border reopening was delayed after a predawn fire at the main marketplace in Dajabon destroyed dozens of stalls. Authorities said they were investigating what caused the blaze.
The marketplace remained largely empty and quiet as a handful of vendors reopened their stalls nearly a month after they were forced to close.
“There’s been a heavy loss here,” said Santo Rodríguez, who sells pasta, butter, mayonnaise, ketchup and other items in his stall and condemned the border closure. “How are you expected to survive?”
Rodríguez, who first opened his business in 1995 and earns some US$176 a week, said that despite Abinader promising to help Dominican business owners affected by the border closure, he hadn’t received any aid.
The most recent diplomatic crisis stemmed from construction of a canal on the Haitian side that aims to collect water from the Massacre River that runs along the border that both countries share on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. The river is named after a bloody 18th-century battle between French and Spanish colonisers.
Haiti’s government has said farmers urgently need the water after an extended drought withered crops in the nearby Maribaroux plain.
Meanwhile, Abinader has said construction of a canal violates a 1929 treaty and would divert water needed by Dominican farmers and affect wetlands in the area.
Shortly after the spat began, Abinader ordered officials to revive use of a nearby canal to collect water before the river enters Haitian territory.
On Monday, Haiti’s government issued a statement saying the attempt to divert water from the Massacre River to “deprive Haitians of it” is “unacceptable and hostile”. The statement stressed the need for dialogue, and said the only suitable outcome would be an equal sharing of water resources, the normalisation of relations between the two countries, and a return to the free movement of people and goods.
“This project unleashed quite an exceptional movement of national unity that perhaps was not what Abinader expected,” said Diego Da Rin with the International Crisis Group. “The canal has become an almost historical point of honour. Haitians want to make it clear that they are a nation that will not allow themselves to be humiliated by their neighbour.”
Da Rin said Haitians in general appear willing to forego certain goods to support construction of the canal. The diplomatic crisis also appeared to be a boon for Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who has been “extremely unpopular”, Da Rin said.
“He took advantage of this to raise or improve his image a little at a critical moment,” he said.
Prior to the diplomatic dispute between both countries, the Abinader administration was pushing to limit the number of Haitians migrating to the Dominican Republic, expelling tens of thousands of them, as well as those of Haitian descent.
The administration also has started building a 118-mile (190-kilometre) wall along the border.
Haiti and the Dominican Republic have long had a contentious relationship despite strong economic ties.
Haiti is the Dominican Republic’s No. 3 trading partner, with US$1 billion in exports to Haiti last year and US$11 million in imports, according to the Dominican Republic’s Export and Investment Centre.
Meanwhile, the Dominican Republic’s central bank found that US$430 million in informal border trade was conducted in 2017 between both countries. Of that amount, more than US$330 million represented exports to Haiti.